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A Short History of Okinawan Karate-Do


Shorin-Ryu Training in Okinawa

Karate, for centuries was originally practiced in secret, cloaked in classical Okinawan dance. The fighting art was closely guarded by family members, teachers and practitioners. Karate was indigenous to the RyuKyu culture, pervaded by weapons bans throughout the centuries which forced the Okinawans to employ empty or China hand (Te) for self-protection.

The lack of records also lends to the curtain of uncertainty regarding historical events and facts for any given time period of Te history. The bombings during the United States invasion of Japan and Okinawa in the 1940's was the final blow and catalyst to obliterate karate's ancient history. Many records of RyuKyu culture, politics and government were destroyed during the war by the bombs and aftermath of fire. After World War II the RyuKyu language Okinawa Hogen was forbidden to be spoken or taught in the schools. We do have some information regarding martial arts in Okinawa and most historians would agree on the following important overview of facts.

  1. Okinawa, an island chain geographically situated between China and Japan, has strong influences from both cultures, thereby borrowing martial art philosophy, technique and training methods from the two outside societies. China and Japan were, for centuries, involved in a tug of war to conquer and overrule Okinawa, an important stopover point for seaborne commerce and trading ships from the surrounding countries.

  2. Influence of other Asian cultures, such as India, is evident in Okinawa. In the sixth century A.D. an Indian monk named Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese) was born into a warrior caste. He became a skilled martial artist. He left India and traveled over the Himalayas into China to teach Zen Buddhism there. He settled at the Shaolin (Shorin in Japanese) Temple monastery. His teachings included Zen Buddhism philosophy, meditation, and even more importantly physical striking with the hands and feet and body shifting, all which are the precursors to Okinawan karate's budding traditions.

  3. Korea, Tibet, Laos, Cambodia and numerous other Asian island cultures throughout the centuries have had their considerable effect on Okinawa. This effect through the pilgrimages of priests and the activities of pirates of mixed racial background who dominated the seas surrounding Okinawa during the Ming dynasty (1368-1643).

  4. Okinawa suffered a history of weapons bans placed upon them by the following:​

    -- Their own royalty in the 1420's the Okinawan King Hashi from Chuzan and First Sho Dynasty.

    -- In 1469, King Sho-En, Second Okinawan Sho Dynasty, outlawed possession of weapons by the people. He placed the ban to please China's royalty and governmental court and also to protect himself and the throne from his enemies.

    -- Sho-Shin reign, Okinawan 1477-1527, during this time period and including 1527 to 1609 Okinawa was left to itself, more or less, by Asia which was torn by war and by Japan which was in a state of anarchy. The RyuKyu islands remained for decades in a relatively peaceful state again without its people bearing arms. The Okinawans were benevolent to the continued visits and trading of peaceful merchant ships. During this time period, karate enjoyed its development throughout the islands.

    -- 1609-1879 Japan's Satsuma clan reinstated the ban on arms including the ban of ceremonial swords. Japan occupied and overruled Okinawa during this time period, allowing China some dictate in the Okinawan political system which was ruled by Japan. Japan did tolerate and there did exist, undisturbed for three centuries, a succession of puppet-like Okinawan kings and royal courts. However the Japanese soldiers, like most any occupying force had little respect for the indigenous Okinawans, their homes or their peaceful way of life.

    -- In 1879, Meiji Period, the abdication of the Okinawan King Sho Thi resulted in Japan completely controlling the government. China withdrew from efficacy and arbitrary interference of the Japanese control of Okinawa. The United States tried to influence this political system, but to no avail. Japan and Okinawa become synonymous from 1879 until present time. Japan remains the authoritative ruler.

  5. The RyuKyu islands stimulated by their development of the weaponless fighting art incorporated the martial ideas of the various cultures into karate thereby further developing (te) empty hand and combat with farm implements. In order to protect themselves and their families from invaders the Okinawans used the only weapons they had at their disposal; their bodies. They combined the knowledge of their own martial heritage with the methods they learned from the Chinese and others.

  6. Okinawan karate from the late 1800's up to the present time is a matter of record and it is more openly practiced and documented in this century. As a result of the described outside influences of cross-pollination of foreign cultural ideas and martial arts exposure, the Okinawans were destined to incorporate and propagate the best techniques and fighting methods from the others and into their own te. The secret practice of karate made it even more mystical to the Okinawan practitioners who dedicated themselves to the constant improvement of these skills. The fundamental precepts of karate and other martial arts, Gan/Soku/Tanden/Riki are worthy of dissecting and exploring especially from the point of view of the ancient Okinawan karate fundamentals … and their contribution to our present day quest for perfection in our training.

  7. To state further, karate has been destined to circulate throughout the world especially in this the 20th century. Modern karate was taught for the first time in Japan in 1923 by a special invitation of the Ministry of Education to Okinawan karate master Gichin Funokoshi who is the father of Japanese karate. Karate made its way to Korea in the later part of the 1940's. The Korean arts adopted the pinan kata, composed by Anko Itosu and various other advanced kata composed by ancient Okinawan masters. In the 1950's, karate came to the U.S. by way of the homecoming of the American military men who were stationed in Okinawa during and after World War II. In the 1960's, Europe and Russia both embraced karate and continue to practice it with the help of modern day Okinawan and Japanese masters. Karate has made its way full circle throughout the world and back to Asia, influencing just about every modern day martial art practice.

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